This series is for the small town educators.
This series is for the educators in towns with administrators whose minds have yet to expand.
This series is for the educators who don’t see themselves as educators, despite illuminating scholars in after-school programs, bodega conversations, tours of sacred spaces, and living room floors.
This series is for the educator who nods and smiles when the central text list is released at the beginning of the school year and then rebels at the start of the school year.
This series is for the educator who speaks up at the professional development.
This series is for the momma educator who everyone came to prior to the professional development to lament about their dreams and how they came to teach Black and Brown scholars about their reflections.
This series is for the momma educator who ain’t a momma but still a momma because she speaks up for you.
This series is for the poppa educator who does the same.
This series is for them. They. Non-binary educators who scholars trust with their whole selves, so they scour shelves, archives, and more to craft mirrors.
This series is for all y’all.
This series is for you.
Decolonize: to withdraw from a colony, to stand independently.
To withdraw from colonization: word to Shuri.
To withdraw from dominant and mainstream conditioning.
We are conditioned. Anecdotes, that carry slivers of truth, sometimes none at all, make their way into our history books as fact. They will have you believing that Harriet Tubman was older and feeble when her defiance began, instead of the thirteen year old that stood her ground while witnessing an enslaved boy be punished in a store. They will have you believing that Rosa was older and tired, as if her grandfather wasn’t an activist and her strategy wasn’t implemented before. They will tell you that Martin Luther King Jr. was a peaceful and quiet man, Malcolm X was reckless, and Medgar was in between.
They will only give you these names and they will stuff the others in notations, one-offs, museum projector slides, and purgatory.
And if you never knew it existed, if you didn’t know your struggle was a reoccurring one, if you thought it was the first time…does it resound?
I’m trying to recollect where it started.
The crevices of my mother’s arms as she read me Langston Hughes.
My father’s obsession with autobiographies and poetry collections.
The trips to our native island of Jamaica where the questions left my pre-teen lips a mile a minute.
The impromptu history trips with my grandmother’s church.
Attending an HBCU where cotton grew on campus.
I don’t know the exact moment where constructs jumped from the page and I started to pull them apart. I’d walked past antiquated homes and consider their origins. Consideration was not enough. Soon I found myself in digital and physical archives, the Internet, and mapping the ancestries of the people who’d lived there. While doing this research, I’d research the demographics of the neighborhood at the time: Where were the indigenous and PoC at this time? Who had access to this space? Do the archives truly reflect the location? Who wrote this? What was their intention? What’s been the impact?
These critical lenses started while I was in middle school. Frustrated with educators who were obsessed with lecture and encouraged no critical discourse, I pushed back and I pushed hard. Somewhere along the lines, the decolonization began. I became a hoodstorian. While most of the texts implored me to head to the south to unearth all that’s been hidden, I was also adamant about the cities I’d grown up in or around: Bedstuy, Jamaica, Uniondale, Hempstead, Roosevelt, Harlem, Bridgeport, Newark, and more.
We were constantly learning about the progression of our state and surrounding entities, but we rarely learned of its flaws. We rarely learned about the Black and Indigenous History of these spaces. If we did, the lesson was short and rushed.
A few years into teaching, these notions resurfaced. A middle school scholar said, “Why don’t we ever learn about Brooklyn?”
He was right. All of our history curriculum was focused on Ancient Civilizations (MOSTLY GREECE & ROME), the Civil War (ABOUT SLAVERY), The Great Depression, the World Wars, and two blips of The Harlem Renaissance and The Civil Rights Movement.
We never discussed what was happening in our own backyard. Neighborhood field trips often aligned with mandated curriculum and scholars would find themselves wandering about museums looking at ancient statues and scientific discoveries, but rarely people that looked like them.
I started modifying the curriculum, almost immediately after this question. What was in our backyard? Weeksville? Jackie Robinson? Brooklyn Renaissance? The Spike Lee Era? Harlem? The Prominent Black Town In Central Park? The Colored Orphan Asylum? Elizabeth Gloucester? The Weeksville Picnic turned Labor Day Parade? I had so many stories to share.
Here is one of them….
Because I am a collector of narratives, particularly ones of those that are underrepresented, many people bring the stories to me.
My homegirl Tenyse calls at 6 am, on a Tuesday. It’s this weird thing we do, trying to see who can wake who up first. She sounds groggy but sad, “My mom is asking you to come upstate with us. She wants you to document something important to our family.”
This collection isn’t something I broadcast (until now), but if you’re around me for more than 10 minutes I’ll start spinning a tale of something that happened in the very place we’re standing in based on my research of the concrete.
Only two weeks after my friend called, I ended up in the mountains of upstate New York with landmark and cemetery soil in the ridges of my favorite boots.
When I am on the hunt for a story, weird things happen. I can prepare myself for the day and I’ll still come undone. I’d left the house with a fully powered extra charger and notes for one story. Instead, I collected numerous stories and my phone died right before meeting with an elder. Strange coincidences happened before and after our visit.
It’s almost like the ghosts/memories keep calling me back to it. Someone wants me to tell this story. The day’s and coming weeks events made it so.
We spent a few hours listening to throwbacks and talking about our days working at an all-boys school before we finally pulled up to the most unique acre(s) of land I’ve ever explored. We ended up on a winding road and suddenly, as we turned left, we were in front of it. Upstate New York’s first Black resort.
Nope. Scratch that.
After several days of research, it WAS the first Black resort in the United States. Although the Green Book, known for identifying safe spaces for Black people throughout the country, exemplifies many black resort towns and beach enclaves, this resort/country club was the first of its kind.
Sixty-eight years ago, the famous tap dancer Clayton Bates opened up the resort with four rooms in this small Ulster County community a two-hour drive from New York City. By 1985, he had 110+ rooms, a mix of bungalows, trailers and motel units. Amenities included but were not limited to picnic grounds, barbecue pits, biking, hiking, catered foods, performances, ping pong, basketball, church services.
But that’s not the most interesting part..
The interesting part is the story of its owner. Clayton Bates was known as “Peg Leg Bates.” He was one of the most incredible tap dancers in the world and he did it all with one leg. Peg Leg Bates was from Fountain Inn, South Carolina. He begun dancing at the age of five in barbershops and anywhere he had an audience.
At the age of 12, after only three days working, he was in a cotton gin accident that took one of his legs. In a PBS documentary about his life, he stated, “To give you an idea, of what a Black person was thought of at that time, they didn’t think enough of me to send me to the hospital. My leg was cut off on my mother’s kitchen table.”
When Peg Leg Bates’ uncle returned form WWI to find his nephew disabled, he fashioned him his first wooden leg. It was with this leg, that he would beat the odds. Peg Leg Bates spent the next few decades amazing crowds throughout Broadway, The Harlem Renaissance, and the Ed Sullivan show twenty-two times.
However, I’m sure he performed many more times at his own resort in a cabin that was longer than the rest, green and tan unlike the other white structures, and the first one that seemed to greet you.
I didn’t know this from my research.
I knew this because of a feeling. Remember, earlier on, when I said that I paused in front of antiquated homes and abandoned spaces? It wasn’t necessarily because of their look. It was because of an energy that I seemed to crawl under my skin as I walked past these places. I would feel it right before turning to look at the space and when I finally set my eyes on it, an imaginary story would make its way into my mind.
This time, I heard, “This is where the entertainment happened.”
My friend and her mom echoed these thoughts, shortly after, telling me that many Black Harlem Renaissance greats, actors, actresses, musicians, writers, doctors, engineers, lawyers, and more made their way up to “Peg Leg Bates’ place.”
To understand the impact of this space, you need to bring to mind the atmosphere for Black people in the United States in the 1950s. It was the Civil Rights era and prior to the opening of Peg Leg Bates’ Country Club/Resort there’d been very few spaces where Blacks could room or travel to, in upstate New York.
To give you some perspective, I have a friend who’s incarcerated in a prison twenty minutes away. We’d lost touch because he transitioned to this facility while I was in the process of moving. When we reconnected, here’s what he had to say:
“My correctional facility is in a small town that was known for two things: Ku Klux Klan presence and farming. The farming community became obsolete with larger farms and corporations that opened up in nearby counties, but they were blessed with a correctional facility. All of those Klan members and their descendants became correctional officers. 95% of the population here are Black and Latinx. When we got on this call, you asked “How are you?”
How am I? That’s how I am.”
That’s right. Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates took his retirement funds, defied his surroundings, and made the decision to open up a refuge for our hard work in the midst of supremacist-filled towns.
Nothing could hold us back, not even the no-trespassing signs.
We explored the property, eyeing each cabin and pondered what took place in each room. There were small streams in corners of the property, wooden bridges that led you from the road to the bungalows, hills in the distance, and foliage everywhere.
We filled the hollowness of the abandoned grounds with memories, laughter, and banter about all of the fervor the guests must’ve felt upon arrival. We walked to the road, in efforts to get back home before it was dark, my friend’s mother leading the way.
Before we left, we read the words on a sign on the right side of the property. It said, “Rocky Hill Farm: Breaking Ground 2020.”
A sadness took over our adventure. My friend and her mother were not aware the property had been sold and were equally distraught that it would be destroyed.
Perhaps the ghosts know that I’m defiant.
Perhaps they know that I let nothing get in the way of my purpose.
I spent the next few weeks, going through my notes, reading every article about the resort and Peg Leg Bates’ Country Club that I could. I found that he’d been honored with a statue in his birthplace, Fountain, South Carolina. I discovered that someone wrote a children’s book about him. I found out he’d been honored at Fashion Institute of Technology.
However, I fell short on narratives. Where were the people that spent their time at the resort? Where was his family? Why didn’t they have ownership of the place?
While taking a break from my research one evening, I sat with a friend’s grandmother and we talked for hours. She talked about girls trips she took in the 50s and how she loved nature, “Ain’t nothing like a forest breeze.” We’d spent time talking about politics and her favorite shows and her statement brought me back to the resort.
I asked her, “Have you ever heard of Peg Leg Bates’ Country Club?”
She said, “Girl! That’s a throwback. Of course! He was FINE, too!”
A few days later, I had a phone conversation with my friend that is incarcerated close to the resort. I told him what I was working on. He said, “I know that spot. There’s a guy in here that talks about it all the time. He’s been in here since it was jumping.”
Residents of upstate New York, that they’d once lived close to, started calling my friend and her mother, to catch up. Considering the adventure was top of mind, they asked about their memories of the resort.
They received incredible responses:
“I used to sing there.”
“I have pictures there.”
“That was my spot!”
“He left a LEGACY.”
I relayed the project to my father and he recalled a summer camp, for Caribbean kids, in a old resort filled with bungalows. He said he’d call an old friend to find out if it was one and the same.
The stories were making their way to us.
How do we save the first Black resort?
In Peg Leg Bates’ will, he requested that if the resort was ever sold that it was sold to a Black owner. This was honored when it was sold to Doreen Richardson. She restored the space, brought kids up for the summer from the city, and had plans to bring it back to life.
In 2012, Doreen died while checking property damage at the resort during Hurricane Sandy. Doreen was close with my homegirl’s mom. They’d spent some summers at the resort.
The state took over the property after Doreen’s death and the property was sold to Rocky Hill Farm, despite Doreen’s wishes. As we left the premises, the day of our exploration, we all agreed that this space should be one of commemoration, a space for youth to thrive, and people to remember Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates’ legacy. We also agreed that it should be remembered as a space of activism and progress.
The erasure of Black, Brown, and Indigenous History, especially in America, is not an anomaly.
Historic houses have been torched or demolished.
We’ve built cities atop sacred Indigenous burial sites.
We’ve unearthed Black bodies to gentrify neighborhoods.
This is all I could think of, as we drove off of the premises.
Before we made our way to the highway, my friend’s mother made one more stop. We pulled into a cemetery where Peg Leg Bates and his wife, Alice, are buried.
I got out of the car and kneeled down, near his headstone. It was etched with their likeness and an image of the communal space where dinner, entertainment, and a casino were housed.
I decided right there and then, as an instructional designer and self-proclaimed hood historian, to inform our next generation about all of the stories they’ve tried to eradicate.
I made that pledge to Mr. Bates in person.
One narrative at a time.
One lesson at a time.
One scholar at a time.